Tuesday, January 12, 2010
I've never tried it myself -- those moments of actual money have been remarkably few and far between in my experience -- but I'll admit being fascinated by the concept. As near as I can figure, the arguments for cluster hiring are several:
First, it's much likelier to effect real cultural change in a department that needs it. Bringing one new hire into a department every few years is much less likely to shift the culture than bringing on several in one shot. In my estimation, this is, by far, the best argument in its favor. Some departments grow stale over time, especially if they've shrunk by attrition over the years. In those contexts, it's possible for the 'new kid' to be the one who has only been there ten years. (I've actually seen this.) When a department gets too backwards-looking, bringing in a single new person is unlikely to matter much. Bringing in a clearly-defined new cohort, though, can actually shake things up. That can work both ways, of course, but if the status quo is bad enough, it can be a risk worth taking.
Second, and somewhat related, affirmative action is much easier to practice when you have multiple hires at once. Instead of those awful, no-win battles between "the one they really want" and "the diversity hire," you can get both. (I'll grant without argument that these are sometimes the same person. But sometimes they aren't.) I'm not saying that's right or wrong; I'm just saying that pragmatically, it makes successful compromise far easier.
Third, it gives the new kid/s allies. Having a cohort can lessen the sense of isolation or freakishness. This can be especially important when the department has a habit of sloughing off the most time-consuming service work on the junior members.
All of those granted, though, I'm still a bit skeptical.
First, there's the basic fact of economic cycles. If you were reasonably confident that you could hire a few clusters every year, then "taking turns" can make sense. But if you only get a meaningful number of hires once every five or ten years, blowing them all on one or two departments pretty much guarantees starving out everybody else. I've been through enough downturns now to know that counting on multiple, consecutive bounteous years is a fool's errand. The next time we're actually able to hire in meaningful numbers, the backlog of departments needing people is so long that bestowing the lion's share on any one (or two) would constitute something between favoritism and insanity.
Second, the pig-in-a-python model leads to predictable and difficult issues down the line. Many of the staffing issues facing higher ed now stem from an unintentional pig-in-a-python hiring pattern, in which the huge group hired in the 60's slowly makes its way to the end. Replicating that model on a micro level now will replicate those issues on a micro level later. In my observation, the most successful departments tend to have a range of career stages in them at the same time, so the experienced folks can mentor the newbies, and the newbies can keep the veterans from getting too complacent (or bitter). Too much sameness isn't good.
Third, there's quality. In some disciplines, it may be easy enough to get one or two good hires in a given year, but more than that involves some stretching. (The evergreens are mostly immune to this, but it holds true in some specialized areas.) If new 'lines' are distributed across the curriculum, you can be pretty confident that the batting average will be high. Clustered in one spot, that isn't as true.
Admittedly, right now, cluster hiring is pretty much theoretical. (Hiring at all is pretty much theoretical.) But in a sense, that makes this a good time to think about it, since we can look at its merits without getting bogged down in local circumstances. In discussing it now, I'm not implicitly passing judgment on any one department.
Wise and worldly readers, have you lived through rounds of cluster hiring? If you have, are there pluses/minuses I've neglected? I'd like to get some clarity on this before it becomes relevant, so if/when it does, I'll be ready.
It was a nightmare, for a multitude of reasons:
1. We did not have a good mentoring system set up.
2. Because the move to a new building was delayed, they were all stuffed together in what used to be the departmental library for their offices.
3. This set up a strong solidarity between them, but it quickly became "them" and "us."
Ten years later and some of that is still evident when things get bad.
So if you do this -- please think through the mentoring, spacing, and integration issues VERY carefully and please, don't let things fester if anyone or any "side" feels like the wheels of the bus are coming off. Trust me -- it takes more energy to heal than to fix the problems initially.
My colleagues were great and did bring new energy and vision -- but it was exhausting all around. We could/should have done it better. So too -- they could have trusted us a bit more that this was not some master plan to screw up their new lives too -- know?
I don't know that this was the case in my grad program, but it seems to be cluster hiring wouldn't have to starve other departments - it could also be a remedy to having been starved in the past.
The biggest problem was that this was, as I said, an open search. The dept got ~1200 applications and being on the search committee was a nightmare. Obviously, this isn't a necessary component of cluster hiring, but I wonder if the more people you can hire, the harder it is to decide on what fields you should look for?
Now that all of those '68 hires are rapidly retiring we should be having a Second Great Cluster Hire but with the economy the way it is I'm not sure the money will be there.
It has been a wild ride, between the hiring process, the tenure process, orientation/acclimatization, etc. We deliberately sought out, 'game changers' to add to an overly-staid department, and we succeeded, but the old adage, "be careful what you wish for", is now coming to mind.
We had a strong mentoring program, that seems to have succeeded, except that some of the old-timers view the mentoring process as an indoctrination camp on how to overthrow the old guard. Our new faculty are all struggling (some more, some less) with their roles and their desire to be innovative and revolutionary; in the face of some resistance. And, to be sure, at least two of them have definitely reached too far, both in terms of classroom innovation and burning bridges with colleagues.
So, I would echo much of what DD stated. In the long run, I think it will be worth it. In the short run, it is rough sledding.
There may be other kinds of cluster hires too, but I haven't applied for them (yet).
Space has been an issue, as has mentoring. Other challenging issues in terms of time: scheduling teaching observations each semester, and completing the reappointment process in a timely manner each spring.
It hasn't helped that about halfway through the hiring, the college system changed tenure from a 5-year process to a 7-year process. Some of us are one, some the other (I'm 7).
My university seems to be doing thematic cluster hires, rather than disciplinary---eg, right now philosophy, spanish, and geography are all hiring in Latin American fields. That evens out the distribution quite a bit, as well as strengthening interdisciplinary programs, and still provides people with a potentially sympatico cohort.